Work Smarter, Not Harder: Simply the Most Efficient Way to Learn a Language

Raise your hand if you hate wasting time.

Now keep your hand up if you want to not only learn a language quickly but actually be able to speak and use it in your daily life.

While there are nearly as many “learn a language fast” hacks as there are language learners, one factor learners should be considering alongside speed is efficiency.

If you “learn” your target language in four quick weeks of vocabulary drills and memorization exercises, you haven’t spent awful much time on the language. You’ll almost certainly have little or nothing to show for those four weeks you did spend studying.

By the same token, as much as we want to be able to actually use and speak our languages, nobody is relishing the idea of five years of classes and daily practice to reach fluency.

To learn a language well, learning should be fun, focused and, most importantly, it shouldn’t be wasting a minute of your time.

This is where efficiency comes in.

Efficient, according to Oxford Dictionaries Online, means: “(Especially of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense,” and as language learners, it’s what we should all be striving for.

If you want to not only learn a new language fast but also impress the natives with your mastery of it, you’ve got to stop wasting your time on counterproductive attitudes and activities now.

Four steps can take you from frustrated aspiring bilingual to efficient multilingual machine, and it all starts with attitude.

The Most Efficient Way to Learn a Language, Summed Up in 4 Steps

Step 1: Boost Your Language Learning Efficiency with a Quick Attitude Adjustment

Language learning is literally all in your head, so to do it right, you’ll need to make sure your head is screwed on straight.

All the research tells us that attitude is one of the most important factors in language learning, and that yours can make or break your language learning aspirations.

Most of the stumbling blocks that trip up learners on their linguistic journeys come from being misinformed or making inaccurate assumptions about language learning and languages in general. Getting started learning a new language can seem like an impossibly daunting task at the outset, especially if you haven’t mentally prepped for it.

For that reason, before you start any kind of learning routine at all, touch base with yourself on attitude.

Let these four fundamental facts of language learning orient you when you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed:

1. Multilingualism is individually and societally normal and anyone can achieve it.

Too many language learners have this odd idea that speaking multiple languages is something reserved for geniuses and savants, but if that’s true then well over half of Earth’s population is incredibly gifted.

In most countries you see on today’s map, the majority of people speak multiple languages, whether they’re local dialects, world languages learned in school or other important regional languages.

Furthermore, you’re born with all the equipment you’ll ever need to learn a language. Your brain is designed to keep learning and learning! It’s just a matter of learning how to tap back into those parts of your brain when you haven’t used them in a couple decades.

2. It’s impossible to learn anything well without assigning purpose to it.

Your short-term memory can retain data for a little while, but it’ll never convert information to long-term memory without giving some kind of meaning or purpose to that data.

This means that you can repeat your second person future subjunctive verb endings every day, but until your brain recognizes what those endings mean, they’re probably not sticking very well. It’s why you’ll always remember an elephant named Butterfly, even when basic verb conjugations seem impossible to get down.

But once you’ve started using that second person future subjunctive in Portuguese to wish your Brazilian colleagues a nice evening, your brain can start working with these curious verb endings, their relationships to things going on in the real world around you and how they might apply to other verbs.

3. Language isn’t a finite thing that you can learn and have; it’s an infinite process in which you can learn and participate.

There’s no magic number of vocabulary words that together, when all memorized, add up to completely learning a language.

As the eager learners we are, we get so caught up in progressing from simple present to past to perfect tenses that we start to think that compiling enough of these pieces will eventually make us perfect at the language, but every language is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Instead of thinking of a language as some concrete thing with black-and-white boundaries and hard-and-fast rules, think of it as a living process by which its speakers communicate and accomplish tasks socially. Instead of trying to collect all the pieces, focus on using the pieces you have, watching how other speakers of the language mix and match their own pieces, and then pick up new pieces from other speakers as you learn them organically in context.

4. Native speakers pay way less attention to your mistakes than you do.

Foreign language anxiety is real and it can be crushing.

The first few times trying to speak a new language in front of people feels like singing naked in front of a room of strangers, and for many this results in failure to launch.

While anxiety is natural and all of us deal with it, you’ll be glad to know that you’re usually the only one in the room judging your every word and your pronunciation. Natives aren’t looking at the language like you are; instead, they see through it as they use it to communicate with you.

Try paying attention for a couple of hours to your own odd grammar mistakes, slips of the tongue and not-quite-right word choices in your native language, and you’ll realize that you hardly ever notice these sorts of things from yourself or anyone else.

These four ideas are crucial for clearing away the mental stumbling blocks that you didn’t even see lying in wait.

Countless would-be polyglots doom themselves to eternal monolingualism when they think it’s too hard, when they force themselves through tedious classes, when they mistakenly think that a language can be memorized or when they’re simply too afraid to make mistakes.

The efficient language learner doesn’t waste their time, and once they’ve got this pro-learning attitude down, they’re ready to move on to the second step.

Step 2: Tap into Your Brain’s Natural Capacity for Statistical Learning

Despite the seemingly stuffy name, statistical learning is generally the most enjoyable and easiest part of learning a new language.

If you’ve ever tried to learn a language by immersing yourself, by watching TV or any other input-based language learning strategy, you’ve used statistical learning methods. But what is statistical learning, and how do you apply it to learning a new language?

What’s statistical learning?

Statistical learning is the process by which your brain compiles mass amounts of data and then uses this enormous sample to extrapolate super accurate and nuanced patterns within the data.

As it relates to language learning, statistical learning basically means soaking yourself in a language and literally filling your head with countless numbers of observations and examples.

We’re talking data so numerous you’ve never met the computer that can handle them, but thankfully your human brain comes factory-ready for this kind of information gathering.

When babies are born, they almost immediately start compiling linguistic data on speech sounds and frequencies, words and meanings, and eventually sentence structures and grammar rules. But babies aren’t the only ones who can exploit this process.

When, for example, a speaker of English as a second language has spent enough time interacting with other users of the language, their brain will start to compile countless instances of phrases like “I had fun” and “I had a good time.” Eventually (usually subconsciously), the learner picks up on the pattern that phrases like “I had a fun” are never used by native speakers, while phrases like “I had fun” are.

Alongside all the other countless examples of different kinds of nouns, some that can be counted (like “one time,” “two times”) and others that can’t (like “two funs”), all this data can be generalized into rules about not only how the words “fun” and “time” work, but how other words like them in the language might work.

How does focusing on statistical learning enhance your language learning efficiency?

Think of it as the sponge factor: The vast majority of statistical learning activities can be either seamlessly integrated into your daily routine or practiced from your couch in sweatpants and a ratty t-shirt.

Statistical learning is easy because you don’t have to take any special time to do it. Listening to your target language from a radio app on your phone while you wait for the bus or integrating it into your relaxation time with a TV show or movie means that the language isn’t disrupting your day but instead blending into it. All those hours you would have been spending in class (and on getting there and back) can instead be your chilled-out linguistic osmosis time.

It’s also a more effective approach because it focuses on the language as a whole instead of memorizing its parts in the hopes of later building them up into something useful. Simply observing a language in its natural state is much more efficient than isolating single words and rules and isolating yourself to study them.

Productive ways to practice statistical language learning

The goal of statistical learning practice is building up that corpus of data you’re carrying in your head, and anything you do to that end should be focused on exposing yourself to natural instances of the language at a level at which you can understand part or most of it. An Oscar-nominated thriller with lofty, poetic language will be a waste of time for many beginners, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find something at a level you’ll understand and flesh out your sample of the language.

Like we said, statistical learning covers almost any activity in which you’re exposed to a language. That said, the possibilities are limitless, but here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Read a familiar book in translation. Your familiarity with the storyline will give you a huge comprehension boost, allowing you to retain even more from the text.
  • Watch a TV series that’s right for your level. Challenge yourself with a Netflix binge, or tune into a plain and slow-talking kids’ show.
  • Read a Wikipedia page about a familiar subject in your target language. Wikipedia’s a language learning goldmine, with millions of articles in dozens of languages. Just like reading a familiar story in a foreign language, this is one of the easiest and most efficient vocab-building exercises.
  • Watch a Disney movie dubbed in your target language. Got an animated film you’ve seen a hundred times in English? Chances are you’ll understand a lot of it in your target language too.
  • Eavesdrop in a park. Stake out on a bench and actively listen to passersby, seeing what you can understand and what you notice about their language use.
  • Have a focused conversation. As soon as you’ve got your basic conversational vocabulary down, you can get some of your statistical input from real, live natives. Ask about subjects you’ve recently read about and observe how the speaker talks about them.

Statistical language learning is an efficient way to cut out the memorization drills and start seeing and hearing what your target language really sounds like and what you can do with it. It’s organic, effective and costs little or no extra time out of your busy day.

But you’re not gonna get very far without actually using what you’re learning.

Step 3: Apply the Statistics with Social Learning

Remember all those formulas you learned in high school algebra?

…yeah, didn’t think so.

Data gathering is all well and good (and necessary), but if you don’t make that data matter to you somehow, it’s gone as soon as the exam’s over.

During and after all your data compiling, the real magic happens right here in the use-it-or-lose-it phase of efficient language learning.

What’s social learning?

More or less, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

Social language learning is putting to use all that linguistic material you’ve been soaking up by using it for its intended purpose: socializing and communicating with others.

If statistical learning is data gathering, then social learning is applied statistics, using effective repetition to make organic connections between the words you’re learning and how they relate to the world around you. It’s how you take the lessons and patterns you’ve drawn from all that data and convert them into new synapses and strong, deep, lasting connections in your brain.

Remember fundamental fact #2 above: to learn anything well and retain it, you have to give it a use or purpose. And with language learning, that purpose normally broadly falls into one of two categories:

  • Using language to accomplish a task socially, from discussing where to go for lunch to explaining your problem to the computer repairman.
  • Developing social relationships through which you experience the language, including those with friends and significant others, but also the postman who visits your home abroad or your overseas business partners.

These two different kinds of activities—accomplishing tasks and building relationships—give you meaningful investments in the language.

By getting important stuff done in another language, your use of that language will be more focused on practical things, like setting up the Internet in your new apartment and getting to know your new friends better.

In short: You’ll learn it because you’ll have to and you’ll want to.

What’s so efficient about social language learning?

In a nutshell, it’s unavoidable: No human being will ever learn a language without social interaction.

The perfectionist will struggle with the urge to stay home and study their noun declensions for just one more hour before going to their language exchange, but most of the time that’s a super inefficient use of time. Once you’ve gathered a decent statistical sample of the language, your time is best spent on the ground, playing trial and error with all the new rules and patterns your brain is testing out on the data.

Furthermore, just like with statistical learning, most of the ways you practice it are fairly normal everyday activities for most of us, thus saving the time of constructing a big, artificial, inefficient study routine.

Productive ways to practice social language learning

The secret is simple: Talk and listen.

Here’s a list of suggestions to get you started:

  • Make a new friend. Meeting a person is always a good chance to chat, but the real social learning goldmine is investing in friendships and relationships that lead to important social, personal and emotional bonds in the language.
  • Go on a date. You use your native language differently with a significant other than you do a friend or parent, just like you will in a second language. Dating gives you chances to explore the language from different angles while also adding an important social tie to your repertoire.
  • Cook a meal together with someone. Organizing to accomplish a focused task is mega practical and also mega social. Join your new housemates in the kitchen and explore not only how you use the language to communicate with each other, but to talk about and interact with all the ingredients, dishes and appliances in your environment.

Remember that social learning by definition is always going to involve another person, and that learning implies you’ll need to think about things at least a little bit.

Something like going to a café or restaurant and repeating the phrase you’ve memorized to order your food, or even just rehashing the same get-to-know-you conversation every weekend, isn’t “learning” so much as memorization or parroting. You need to get more flexible and spontaneous than that.

As a rule of thumb, if a parrot can do it, it probably doesn’t count as social language learning!

Step 4: Achieve Maximum Language Learning Efficiency

Once you’ve updated your attitude and learned a bit more about learning, you’re already well on your way to a super efficient language learning routine.

But here’s the catch: None of these previous three steps does much good all by itself.

Instead of finishing one step, wiping your hands clean and moving on to the next, think of efficient language learning like a big circle, a continuous process just like the language you’re learning.

This final step requires you to combine your can-do attitude with both statistical and social learning. 

This means that you now need to integrate all three of the previous steps!

Statistical learning builds the foundation and supplies the fodder for your social learning endeavors. Those social encounters will often give you new data which send you back into the statistical learning zone, leading you to give a closer listen to something you thought you understood or learning new ways of talking about or doing the same thing. To support your ongoing statistical and social learning, you’ll need to frequently check your attitude, ensuring that you stay sailing smoothly and efficiently forward.

Every now and then in your efficient language learning cycle, take a minute to revisit your attitude and put those four fundamental facts from before into action:

1. Squash “I can’t” thinking. You can do it and anyone can.

2. Understand your purpose. What kind of communicative tasks do you want to accomplish with your language, and how can you best train for those tasks? Let the answers to these questions guide your learning.

3. Don’t expect to “learn a language” by memorizing the magic number of vocabulary words. Instead, learn how native speakers use the language in their daily lives, and learn how to participate in that process.

4. Never let fear of failure keep you from speaking. Nobody’s paying enough attention to your language use to notice most of your mistakes, and if they do notice, they don’t care!

Use these principles to guide how you think about and approach your language, and make efficient decisions based on them. You know what you want out of your language, and you can decide what kind of practice and studying works best for you.

Here are some examples of how you can combine statistical and social strategies with your good attitude in your language learning endeavors:

  • Join a book club. Online or in person, find a book (or magazine, or newspaper) to read and discuss what you’re reading with other speakers of the language. Go out of your way to use new words and structures you’ve learned from your reading, and pay attention to how others are using the same words of structures.
  • Watch a romantic comedy or two and hop on Tinder. Pay attention to how the characters use language to flirt and get to know each other in your movie, and try imitating it a bit in real life. You’ll probably sound corny at first, but if you’re lucky it’ll make you seem even cuter.
  • Watch a new series with a friend. Find a series you want to watch, or better yet, ask natives what they’re watching and join in. Observe the characters’ speech, and try some of it on for size as you chat with your friend while the credits go by.


Remember, everyone loves to learn quickly, and perfect grammar is never a bad thing, but don’t lose focus of what really matters: Efficiency.

Learning a language is a huge commitment, so you want to spend your time and energy wisely.

Soak your brain in your target language, use it fearlessly in social situations and never lose focus on having a positive attitude.

Do all that, and you’ll never waste a minute of your time on your journey to fluency.

Jakob is a full-time traveler, obsessive language learner, and dedicated language teacher. He writes about language, travel, and the many places they meet on the road at his blog Globalect.

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